LSU Tigers: Les Miles

Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. On Friday we focus on a pair of tight ends who could be used in a hybrid receiver role this fall.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- If LSU’s tight ends do in fact play an increased role as receivers this season, DeSean Smith is sure to play a vital role in the added workload.

He’ll have plenty of company from a deep group of veterans at his position, but a newcomer with a similar skillset, freshman Jacory Washington, might become Smith’s closest competition.

To learn why, take a look at snippets from their ESPN prospect evaluations:

On Smith, whom ESPN rated as the No. 141 overall prospect and No. 5 “H” tight end in the 2013 recruiting class: “Smith is a physically good-looking prospect. He is essentially a big wide receiver at the high school level and is at his best when he can play flexed out. ... What Smith does well, he can do really well, but he needs to keep developing to become a more well-rounded and versatile player at the position. At this stage, he has the tools to make some plays in the passing game and looks best suited for more of a spread attack.”

[+] EnlargeJacory Washington
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 tight end Jacory Washington will compete with redshirt freshman DeSean Smith to be LSU's receiving tight end.
On Washington, whom ESPN rated as the No. 169 overall prospect and No. 5 “H” tight end of 2014: “Basically a big wide receiver at the high school level, but will likely transition more into the role of a tight end at the next level. Does need to continue to add size and further fill out his frame. ... Washington needs to keep filling out and improving in areas, but is a big target with good hands and is a tight end prospect who can offer some versatility and be a productive weapon for a passing attack.”

Sounds fairly similar, right?

Smith anticipates that being the case once the freshman arrives with most of his fellow signees this summer.

“Me and Jacory, I think we’re pretty much the same type of tight end,” Smith said. “He did the same kinds of things that I did in high school and when he gets here, he’s probably going to have to pack on a couple more pounds -- which I had to do the same thing -- and stay lean because he still needs to be able to run and keep his speed. I can’t wait until he gets here so I can teach him everything that the veterans taught me.”

Smith actually packed on too much weight before he arrived on campus last summer. Listed at 225 pounds as a prospect, Smith said he weighed 255 when he reached Baton Rouge -- and he said the added weight affected his mobility.

“I was able to move, but not as good as usual,” Smith said. “But working with Coach [Tommy] Moffitt and my strength coach, I’m definitely much more lean than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel great, I’m eating right and just need to stay around 240. That’s where they want me, so I’m staying there.”

While Smith’s story is a cautionary tale on how he can’t overdo it, Washington definitely needs to add to the 215 pounds that LSU listed as his weight on signing day. LSU regularly has one or two tight ends on the field, but they must be able to function as blockers as well as receivers, so some extra bulk would come in handy.

Both players seem to have the receiving part down pat, however.

“I think I can be a big-time threat,” Smith said after catching three passes for 45 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Harris, in LSU’s spring game. “Being 6-5 over certain linebackers and going up for everything, I can make those big-time plays. And I just have to run crisp routes, have to give them a little something off the ball sometimes, and I think I’m able to do that.”

LSU’s coaches have certainly identified that potential from the two prospects, as Smith’s working at a slot receiver position at points during the spring seems to indicate. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s scheme has historically utilized tight ends in such a capacity, so perhaps Smith and Washington will continue that tradition.

“We’ve used them in the past and I think that any time that you have a position that is used to block and he can also receive the ball, it makes a tremendous difference in your attack,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And it’s another quality receiver. I think both DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington will be guys that we’ll use in the fall.”
Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook from the spring and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit before the Tigers’ spring game. On Thursday we focus on the special teams, which has a new coordinator this year.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- You might wonder how much Colby Delahoussaye can improve upon the results from his freshman season. He missed only one field goal and one extra point, after all -- but that was his focus during LSU’s spring practice.

“I don’t want to say [I was seeking] perfection because nobody’s perfect, but just to hit the ball as well as I can and after each kick -- whether it’s a perfect kick or something’s wrong with it -- I just want to know what did I do wrong each kick without even looking at tape,” Delahoussaye said. “I’m going to look at tape, but I just want to know what did I do wrong at that instance. I want my body to be so conformed to doing the right thing that it knows whenever it does the wrong thing.”

[+] EnlargeColby Delahoussaye
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesColby Delahoussaye missed only one of his 14 field goal attempts last season.
So far, so good. After hitting 13 of 14 field goals -- his 92.9-percent average made him the SEC’s most accurate place-kicker in 2013 -- and 56 of 57 PATs, Delahoussaye said he was hitting the ball even better during the spring. He added close to 10 pounds of muscle during offseason conditioning, which he said made a difference in his kicking power.

“I’ve been kicking the best I’ve been kicking in probably all of my life,” said Delahoussaye, who booted six PATs and did not kick a field goal in the Tigers’ spring game.

The question facing Delahoussaye is not whether he will be the Tigers’ 2014 place-kicker -- that seems to be highly likely -- but whether he will handle other kicking duties. For instance, coach Les Miles recently expressed a preference that another kicker replace James Hairston as the kickoff specialist to reduce Delahoussaye’s workload.

A lifelong LSU fan, Delahoussaye said he also would like to be the kickoff man but will be happy to specialize only in the kicks that result in points.

“I really enjoy kicking field goals. I’ve never complained about wanting to do more. Whenever I’m kicking field goals for LSU, I’m never going to complain about that.”

Besides, the Tigers have some other options who could keep them from relying on the sophomore too heavily.

“There’s a young man named [Cameron] Gamble coming in who has a pretty good leg,” Miles said. “We’ll also look at some other guys we have on the team at kicker that have ability. Trent Domingue would be that guy.”

Domingue was that guy this spring, and he also rotated with 2013 starter Jamie Keehn, who averaged 41.0 yards per punt last fall, as the first-team punter. Domingue punted eight times in the spring game and averaged 39.9 yards per attempt, and Keehn averaged 41.5 yards on four kicks.

“This is probably the biggest opportunity I’ve had, but I’m just going to keep working hard and not let it pass me up,” said walk-on Domingue, who has yet to appear in a college game.

Even if Keehn holds onto the punter job, there will still be plenty of turnover on the Tigers’ special teams units this fall under first-year coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto. Aside from the kickoff job, someone must replace Odell Beckham as the return man on kickoffs and punts.

Miles said some members of the Tigers’ star-studded 2014 recruiting class might be able to step into that role -- one that requires steady hands and breakaway speed, which are always in full supply on LSU’s roster.

“A number of guys can catch it. I think [tailback Terrence] Magee may very well be one of those guys,” Miles said. “I think there’s a likelihood that we’ll have some of those fast guys in that spot, as well. I think there’s some guys that will show up here in June that may also have an opportunity to do some return damage.”
Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook from the spring and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. On Tuesday, we focus on a junior pass rusher with star potential.

BATON ROUGE, La. – Danielle Hunter had a fine first season as a starter, but he had a problem. Mentally, the then-sophomore couldn’t get out of his own way.

“I was thinking too much,” Hunter said. “I know you could watch games and you could see me just, like, I’d stutter myself out of sacks and all that. I was thinking too much last year. I need to just let go and just play.”

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy, Danielle Hunter
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsDanielle Hunter is a good bet to build on his sack total of three from last season.
There were bright spots along the road. He was the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week after recording seven tackles and batting down two passes in the Tigers’ 17-6 win over Florida. And he recorded a career-high eight tackles against Auburn -- the first of 10 consecutive starts he would make to close the season.

But Hunter finished the season with just three sacks (tied for second on the team), eight tackles for a loss (second) and five quarterback hurries (second). The Tigers’ total of 27 sacks was the program’s fewest since 2009.

That’s why he identified improving as a pass rusher as one of his top goals during spring practice.

“All of us, we’ve got to do better than last year because last year we didn’t do as well as we thought we were going to do,” Hunter said.

If Hunter’s spring was any indication, expect rapid improvement this fall. For one thing, Hunter is no longer out-thinking himself.

“Coach Brick [Haley] has been telling me I’m starting to do that,” he said. “The young guys are starting to do that.”

Hunter recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in a standout effort during the Tigers’ spring game and was credited with two more quarterback hurries.

He made sure to share the credit with defensive tackle Quentin Thomas afterward for occupying blockers, but it was Hunter who blew past the offensive tackle to record the two sacks.

And as his confidence continues to build -- and as he learns to “just let go and play,” as he put it -- the 6-foot-6 junior might emerge as one of the SEC’s better pass rushers in 2014.

“I think he’s a very talented guy,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think he has range and speed and I think the more snaps he gets, the more significant he’ll be and the more impact that he’ll give us in the fall. I think he’ll start fast and I think he’ll finish fast.”
Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook from the spring and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. We begin with a story on a pair of rising stars in LSU’s secondary.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shortly after LSU’s defense adopted the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” moniker, the Tigers tired of breaking huddles by using the nickname that Seattle’s feisty secondary gave itself.

But LSU’s secondary still has a perfectly good nickname of its own.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesCB Rashard Robinson had his best outing of 2013 in LSU's 34-10 rout of Texas A&M.
“We’ve still got the DBU saying, though,” cornerback Rashard Robinson said.

DBU as in “Defensive Back University,” which might seem boastful, but it suits a program whose secondary has produced seven All-Americans and four first-round NFL draft picks in the last decade.

“That’s a lot to live up to. We’ve got Patrick [Peterson] and them, there were some great players here, so we’ve got to live up to the hype,” said Robinson, who attended the same high school (Ely in Pompano Beach, Fla.) that produced Peterson, a former LSU All-American and current star with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Tigers can go a long way toward upholding that tradition if Robinson and fellow sophomore Tre’Davious White continue their upward climb this fall. The duo put a positive spin on what had been an up-and-down 2013 season for DBU by claiming starting jobs by the end of the fall.

The Tigers gave up some big yardage totals while trying to settle on the right personnel last fall -- including a season-high 349 yards to Ole Miss in Game 8 -- but after that point, they allowed just 168.8 passing yards per game in the final five games. Perhaps the highlight of that stretch was the 34-10 dismantling of Texas A&M when first-time starter Robinson locked down Aggies star Mike Evans, intercepted his first career pass, and the Tigers handed Johnny Manziel (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) the worst outing of his college career.

Now, instead of green freshmen, Robinson and White are established starters, and they might just be growing into the program’s next shutdown corners.

“I think they’re becoming more mature, understand the spot that they’re in,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think they’re getting better. They’re talented men, and they’re getting reps after reps.”

For both players, that means focusing on the little things. Robinson, who wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until two days before the first game last fall, understandably took time to develop the necessary level of confidence.

“I was always peeking towards the sideline, just making sure I wasn’t messing up or anything like that, because I always used to hear [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond yelling and it used to shake me up sometimes,” Robinson said. “But now I just relax and have that football swag with my technique and it’s been going good.”

White entered the starting lineup early last season and spent the spring working on basic elements of cornerback play that make a subtle difference.

“There’s some things I still need to work on. I take it as that, but there’s some things that I got better at as the spring went along,” said White, who led the team with nine passes defended and seven pass breakups last season. “[Things such as] being more physical at the line of scrimmage with the receiver and staying squared, not open as quick as I did last fall.”

As long as they stay out of trouble and in good academic standing, White and Robinson have the potential to lead a bounce-back year for LSU’s secondary -- and maybe even prove that the DBU nickname still has merit -- in 2014.

“To be honest, we’ve still got a couple things to work on, but we’re not too far away,” Robinson said. “We’re coming together.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:

5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.

All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.

4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?

Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.

The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.

3. Who will start at safety?

Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.

Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.

2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?

It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.

Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.

Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.

1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?

We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.

LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
AUSTIN, Texas -- A historic day on the University of Texas campus got even better Thursday, thanks to Les Miles.

The LSU head coach was photographed attending a UT history class along with his wife, Kathy.



Months ago, amid the coaching search to replace Mack Brown, a photo of Miles being spotted on Texas' campus might have burned down the Internet. But no need to panic, LSU fans, he's only in town for his family.

What's going on here? LSU wrapped up its spring practices last week, giving Miles and his wife time to get away this week and visit their daughter, Kathryn "Smacker" Miles, a freshman on the Longhorns women's swim team.

Miles also attended Texas' annual academic awards banquet on Wednesday night and told the Austin American-Statesman he was impressed by the event.

"It’s an affirmation of things being done right," Miles told the newspaper. “I think the message certainly is that to compete not only in the pool but in the classroom, and I think she’s enjoying that very much."

Miles is in Austin on the same day that President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are scheduled to speak at the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit, honoring the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is scheduled to hold its final spring walk-through on Tuesday, which will officially send the Tigers into the offseason.

As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings' ability as a running quarterback will be a weapon LSU can utilize this fall.
1. Those QBs can move: Having seen Anthony Jennings play a bit as a freshman, we already knew he had some wiggle. But freshman Brandon Harris looks to be at least his equal in the running-quarterback department after he had 76 rushing yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s spring game.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.

“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds.

“That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.

2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.

Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.

“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”

Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.

3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.

Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.

LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.

Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.

4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.

They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.

“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”

5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.

The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.

After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.

He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- You know what early enrollees typically do when they play in their first spring game? They stink up the joint -- and understandably so.

By all rights, they should still be in high school, making prom plans or figuring out where to go for spring break. They’ve had only a couple of months to digest a complex college playbook, and they’re competing against more seasoned, more physically mature athletes.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportEarly enrollees aren't supposed to make an impact in spring ball, but QB Brandon Harris did just that in the spring game.
But not only did Brandon Harris not stink up the joint in LSU’s spring game on Saturday, he was arguably the star of the show with three touchdown passes and 195 passing yards. He also flashed impressive escapability when the pocket collapsed, rushing six times for 76 yards and another score.

It was an eye-opening performance, but let’s pump our breaks before declaring the Tigers’ quarterback race over -- even if Anthony Jennings followed an underwhelming performance in the Outback Bowl by going 9-for-17 for 157 yards and tossing interceptions that linebackers Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander returned for touchdowns.

Let’s be clear: if LSU had been playing Alabama -- which seems to be the measuring stick for anything around this program these days -- the performances by either Jennings or Harris would have probably led to an LSU loss.

“There needs to be improvement at the position for both guys,” LSU coach Les Miles confirmed afterward.

Obviously the pair of pick-sixes determined the day’s narrative for Jennings, but Harris had plenty of misfires himself. He displayed a phenomenal skillset and made some remarkable plays, without question, but he simply must reduce the mistakes before he can fulfill his obviously sky-high potential.

Case in point: in the second quarter, Harris overthrew a wide-open DeSean Smith -- wide open as in there was nobody within 10 yards of the big tight end -- and then floated an ugly throw over fullback Connor Neighbors' head on his next pass attempt. Later, he made a debatable decision to throw into double coverage in the end zone, with the pass luckily falling incomplete.

“I really think he made, I don’t know, four, five, six major errors in the scrimmage and yet had the ability to get beyond it, which always is a tremendous mark,” Miles said of Harris, whom LSU has not made available to speak to the media. “And if we can eliminate the mistakes and really play to the advantages, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

If there was anything positive that Jennings could take away from the day, it’s that he at least finished with a flourish. In the first two quarters, Jennings presided over seven drives -- the longest of which covered 31 yards -- with those seven possessions ending in five punts and the two interception returns for touchdowns.

He wrapped up his day with an efficient 73-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, concluding the possession with a 13-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural.

“If you throw an interception and you don’t come right back, you’re not a good quarterback,” Jennings said afterward. “So every quarterback goes through adversity. It’s how you respond, it’s not how you fall.”

He seemed to take a nasty fall on Saturday, but Jennings now has plenty of time to respond. The good news for the Tigers is that they don’t play Alabama for seven months. In fact, they don’t play anybody until the Aug. 30 kickoff against Wisconsin. That’s nearly five months for both quarterbacks to keep developing a rapport with their receiving corps and battling for the right to take the first snap against the Badgers.

Asked about the message he will send the quarterbacks going into summer workouts, Miles’ message was simple: “Compete. That’s it.” This after saying in his press conference that the coaches plan to “let the competition continue and see how this thing plays out” this summer.

Competition was also the theme of this spring, and it was apparently a productive period for both players, of whom Miles reiterated after Saturday’s game that “I think both guys are talented enough to be our quarterback.”

The talent was apparent, particularly when Harris was throwing darts and sprinting away from defenders for big gains. But will LSU’s coaches be able to harness that talent quickly enough to beat opponents like Wisconsin, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and, of course, the mighty Crimson Tide?

That is going to be the deciding factor in LSU’s 2014 season. With what should be an improved defense and with Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield, the Tigers should be able to pound most of their opponents into submission. But against the nastiest teams on the schedule, they need to be able to at least make opposing defenses respect the pass -- and not make any catastrophic errors when they do choose to put the ball in the air.

Both quarterbacks made some potentially catastrophic throws on Saturday, and that’s OK for now. Jennings and Harris need to make great strides in this summer’s passing sessions, however, or it will be 2015 at the earliest before the Tigers again rank among the top contenders for a national championship.

LSU SPRING AWARDS
Here is the full list of spring practice awards that LSU coach Les Miles presented after Saturday’s spring game:

Jimmy Taylor Award (Comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance): D.J. Welter

Ralph Norwood Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, offense): Kenny Hilliard, La'el Collins, Elliott Porter, Jerald Hawkins

Toby Caston Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, defense): Deion Jones, Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson, Danielle Hunter, D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander

Eric Andolsek Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, offense): La'el Collins, Connor Neighbors, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee, Jerald Hawkins

Mike Miley Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, defense): Danielle Hunter, Christian LaCouture, D.J. Welter, Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin

Alvin Roy Fourth Quarter Award (Outstanding performance in LSU offseason program): Danielle Hunter, Duke Riley, K.J. Malone, Ethan Pocic, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Tre'Davious White, Tre' Sullivan, Terrence Magee, Luke Boyd, Jeff Lang

Most Improved Award: Ronald Martin, Lewis Neal, Quentin Thomas, Dillon Gordon, Dwayne Thomas, Fehoko Fanaika, K.J. Malone, DeSean Smith, Anthony Jennings, Tashawn Bower

Jerry Stovall Special Teams Award: Colby Delahoussaye, Reid Ferguson, Tre'Davious White

Newcomer Award: Brandon Harris, Ed Paris

Overcoming Adversity Award: Dwayne Thomas, Quantavius Leslie, Lamar Louis

Coaches Award: Devante Meullion, John David Moore, Chris LaBorde, Tommy LeBeau, Tre' Sullivan, Brad Kragthorpe, Alex Cheramie
BATON ROUGE, La. – This was a spring of transition for LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, with inexperienced players sliding into leading roles at most of the skill-position spots.

That might cause the Tigers to utilize some positions -- like tight end -- differently than they did a season ago, as LSU will certainly carry more question marks into preseason practice than it did last year with a senior quarterback and veteran stars at tailback and receiver.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU's Cam Cameron isn't quite ready to name a starting quarterback.
Cameron discussed that possibility and a variety of other subjects with reporters after Saturday’s spring game. Here is some of what he had to say:

Q: How important will it be that you work the ball to the fullbacks and tight ends in the passing game this season?

A: It’s critical. We want every guy on our offense involved in both phases of our game, run and pass. And at any point in time, if a defense knows you’re not going to throw the ball to a guy, then I think you make it tough on yourself. But Connor Neighbors is as good a receiving fullback as I’ve been around. Melvin Jones is going to be outstanding. All our tight ends, I just mentioned all of them, even J.D. Moore came in and made a big play at the end, so we’ve got great depth at tight end, we’ve got two really outstanding fullbacks and we’re going to need them this season.

Q: How much did you have to tinker with the scheme to work the ball to the tight ends?

A: Our system is what it is. It’s a route tree that allows tight ends to do what they do best. We didn’t feature it last year for obvious reasons, knowing the talent at outside, and then we would move Jarvis [Landry] and Odell [Beckham] down inside almost in a tight end-type role. But this year is different. Every year with different personnel creates a whole new set of opportunities and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical. I was thrilled -- for the most part I thought they made the most of it.

Q: How much will the group of signees arriving this summer cause you to re-evaluate how you use the different positions?

A: You’re always evaluating. But I think everyone knows this: we bring young players here to play. It’s Les [Miles'] philosophy. No one plays more young players than we do to my knowledge. But the key thing is, they know, we expect them to come in and play a major role. Not just play. Not just letter. They need to take a major role and make big plays in big games and this is a freshman class that I know our current players are looking forward to playing with. And at the same time, it’s a group that’s looking forward to coming in here and playing big roles in big games.

Q: How did Rob Bolden make the transition from quarterback to receiver this spring?

A: Rob is 6-5, he looks the part. He’s spatially starting to get a feel for how to play out in space. Was really pleased. First thing he said to me coming through the tunnel was, ‘Gosh, I should have made a couple of those plays,’ and we know that. But I think I’m confident he’ll make those plays.

Q: How much of Brandon Harris’ feel for the pocket and his decisions to tuck it and run were natural and how much was by design?

A: You mean total panic, scramble and run? [Laughs] The only reason I’m saying that is we tease Brandon about that. He may not be doing it for reasons you think he is. But again, I think mobility is something that we like in a quarterback. We know what to do, we think, with a quarterback that doesn’t have mobility and I think there’s certain things that you try to allow QBs to do when they have it, and he and Anthony [Jennings] and even Hayden [Rettig] -- you saw Hayden’s an athlete -- all our guys are pretty athletic and mobility’s going to be a big thing for us this season.

Q: How different are those two quarterbacks from where they were when you started at the first of March?

A: That’s a good question. They’re better. They should be better. They’ll continue to get better. I would think that all our quarterbacks, until the day they leave, will be continuing to improve and will be ascending players after they leave here. That would be our goal. So every snap these guys get in practice or in a scrimmage or in a game, if they can stay healthy, they should get better -- especially when you’re 18, 19 years old.

Q: As you get ready to send them into the summer, what’s the message you’re sending them over what to work on?

A: You know, I haven’t thought about that yet. I’m going to kind of look at the tape, think about it [Sunday] and we’ll meet on Monday, we’ll talk to them on Tuesday. And we’ll kind of get with the staff collectively, ‘OK, where are we? What are our strengths right now? What are the areas we need to improve?’ We’ll kind of let this marinate for a night, think about it and kind of come up with something for them by Monday or Tuesday.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Asked whether Saturday’s spring game would be an important factor in some of his team’s key position battles, Les Miles clearly saw no need to do his best P.T. Barnum impression in order to draw a crowd -- which is fine since admission to LSU’s 1 p.m. CT scrimmage at Tiger Stadium is free.

“Not really to be honest with you. We’re going to watch competition [and] it’s a key scrimmage, but it’s also one of those things where there’s a lot of time left before we get to [deciding] playing time,” Miles said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s one piece, but obviously it’s important and any time we walk into that stadium, we expect our guys to play at a certain level.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportAll eyes will be on the quarterbacks on Saturday in LSU's spring game, and former Under Armour All-American Brandon Harris has a chance to make a big impression.
Miles and his coaches have been observing practice for a month and then they’ll have 29 more August practices to settle their lineups for the opener against Wisconsin. But this is the first chance most of us will have to see how some Tigers handle new or expanded roles in a competitive situation. That’s what makes spring games fun, even if it’s just a glorified scrimmage.

So while Miles indicated it would be a mistake to draw any major conclusions from Saturday’s competition, there are still plenty of areas of intrigue worth observing since this is the last time we’ll see the Tigers do anything competitive until they take the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 30. Here's what we’ll be keeping an eye on from the press box:

Quarterback play: Duh. It was no surprise at Thursday’s practice, which was open for students to attend, that the vast majority of them gathered around the field where LSU’s quarterbacks were throwing to their wide receivers. The competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris is by far the biggest source of intrigue among Tigers fans, and their performances on Saturday will generate speculation all summer about who is best prepared to lead the offense in the opener against Wisconsin.

Both players have worked with the first- and second-team offenses, although Miles hasn’t been specific about who has done what in practices or scrimmages. Jennings certainly looks to have a better handle on things in the portions of practice that are open to the media. Harris, meanwhile, is all raw potential thanks to a powerful throwing arm. The early enrollee seems more likely to sail a ball over or behind a receiver, but when he does it correctly, it’s a thing of beauty.

Defenders could tackle Harris and Jennings when they ran from the pocket in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but Miles predicted they will likely wear non-contact jerseys in the spring game.

Offensive line development: Obviously one of LSU’s main position battles this spring has been at right guard, where Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic have all gotten a look from new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three players factor into the Tigers’ plans in the fall, although somebody has to be the starter. Washington seems to be the leader, but we’ll gain some understanding of the pecking order on Saturday.

Overall, a line that returns four starters was effective last season, particularly as run blockers. They want to become a dominant group this season, however, and their experience and apparent depth make that seem like a possibility. Let’s see how they fare against an emerging LSU defensive line on Saturday.

Beckwith vs. Welter: We could expand this to the performance of the entire reshuffled linebacker corps, with Kwon Alexander at weakside linebacker and Lamar Louis at strong. But let’s narrow our focus on the play of senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith in the middle. Both players have reportedly enjoyed productive springs and both will likely factor into coordinator John Chavis’ plans in the fall. But who will be the starter? Saturday won’t decide that outcome, but it will be interesting to observe how the two players function in a game-like situation.

Interior defensive line: Miles has said a time or two this spring that the competition between the offensive and defensive lines has been encouraging. It will be fun to watch them duke it out on Saturday. One group has a decided experience advantage, particularly after starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolted for the NFL draft. But there are some up-and-comers along the defensive line who could shine on Saturday.

By all accounts, sophomore Christian LaCouture has had a strong spring. Sophomore end Tashawn Bower, redshirt freshman tackles Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore and end/tackle Frank Herron are among the youngsters we’ll be watching, as well.

Secondary play: This is a group that simply has to play better in 2014. All of the contenders at safety haven’t been practicing lately, so it’s unclear whether we’ll get a clear idea of where that competition stands on Saturday. But how smooth will Jalen Mills look at safety? What does early enrollee Ed Paris look like after a month of practices at cornerback? Who fills the various defensive back roles if the Tigers line up in their nickel and dime packages? Will Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White continue to develop into the lockdown cornerbacks LSU fans hope they will become? Those are all questions to keep in mind as you watch the scrimmage.

Who are the playmakers?: Freshmen who could become some of the Tigers’ most dangerous 2014 offensive skill players -- such as tailback Leonard Fournette and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- won’t arrive until the summer. But there are several players already on campus who could use a confidence-building performance at Tiger Stadium to catapult themselves into the offseason.

Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Asked to describe how an ideal 2014 season might develop for his position group, LSU’s DeSean Smith sets a high bar for the tight ends to attempt to clear.

“I envision of course all of us playing, all of us rotating,” Smith said after Tuesday’s practice. “I see our tight ends with probably seven or eight catches a game -- at least -- just to make that big step now that we’re improving in practice and showing them we can catch and be their go-to targets. We have a great receiving corps, too, so I plan on a lot of people getting a lot of balls, but much more [at tight end] than we got last year.”

For those who expected LSU’s tight ends to receive heavy attention last fall in Year 1 under Cam Cameron -- a noted tight end enthusiast during his decade as an NFL offensive coordinator -- Smith’s projection probably seems comical.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is known for getting the tight ends involved and that group expects to have a big role in the offense this season.
The Tigers had three tight ends (Smith, Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes) play in all 13 games and Travis Dickson appeared in 12. But the four players combined for just 12 catches, 211 yards and zero touchdowns last season.

It wasn’t that the tight end didn’t play an active part in the offense, however, it’s that senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger had two of the nation’s most productive wide receivers in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and made full use of their abilities. With Beckham and Landry -- who combined for 136 catches and 2,345 yards last fall -- now chasing NFL dreams, the tight ends believe they will garner more attention from their quarterbacks.

“We had the two best receivers in the country -- that’s what I say, anyway -- and obviously we’re going to push the ball to those guys in game situations,” Stokes said. “But this year, we’re young across the board and we’re looking for playmakers. This spring, we’re starting to find them and some of those playmakers happen to be us.

“When they need us to make a play, DeSean’s made some great plays downfield and me and Dillon have made some nice plays, 10, 15 yards. We’ve had a couple of deep balls this year, too, so we’re definitely going to get more involved this year, I feel like.”

It doesn’t hurt their confidence in making such claims that Cameron has a proven track record of using the tight end. In 10 seasons as an NFL coordinator, his offenses frequently targeted players like Dennis Pitta, Todd Heap and Antonio Gates, who helped usher in a new era of athletic, pass-catching tight ends. Over that 10-year period, Cameron’s top tight end averaged 55 catches for 668 yards and six touchdowns per season.

Obviously it was exciting news to the group, then, that Cameron joined Les Miles’ coaching staff last February.

“First thing, my dad called and told me,” Smith recalled. “Right then, everybody in my family was talking about how he’s a tight end guy. That was pretty neat.”

Now it’s a matter of proving that the group deserves more of an opportunity. That has been a goal this spring, as blocking-oriented players like Stokes work on their pass-catching skills and receiving-oriented tight ends like Smith attempt to become better blockers.

If each member of the group proves he can excel in both areas, LSU’s offense becomes less predictable and more difficult to defend.

“Now when we play teams and we’re in the game, they can’t be like, ‘Oh they’re running the ball’ or ‘Oh they’re throwing the ball.’ Now we can kind of mix it up on people and they won’t know what’s going on,” Stokes said. “I feel like this year we’ve all been catching balls in the scrimmages and we’ve all been active in all aspects of the game.”

They’ll add another member to the group over the summer when signee Jacory Washington on campus. He’ll add another player in the hybrid, pass-catching role of a Smith, as Miles mentioned after a recent spring practice.

“We’ve used them in the past and I think that any time that you have a position that is used to block and he can also receive the ball, it makes a tremendous difference in your attack. And it’s another quality receiver,” Miles said. “I think both DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington will be guys that we’ll use in the fall.”

Since the tight end is involved in essentially every formation the Tigers utilize, expect to see plenty of them on the field this fall -- often two at a time. Whether the group’s reception total rises remains to be seen, but spring is always a time for optimism, and LSU’s tight ends fully believe that their time is coming.

“This year a lot of people have got big shoes to fill, so hopefully we’ll be able to see the tight ends step into that position of being the old tight ends you see in the Cam Cameron offense,” said Dickson, who led LSU’s tight ends with 109 yards on five catches last season. “There’s definitely more opportunities, as much as we use tight ends in our offense. As the season goes on and as a lot of us develop into our key roles, we’ll see what happens.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

Tigers racking up miles under Les

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles would be one of the longest-tenured head coaches in LSU football history if he’s still in charge when the Tigers visit UCLA in 2021. He’d also have earned the most frequent-flyer miles.

That year would be Miles’ 17th as the Tigers’ coach -- only Charles McClendon’s 18 would outrank him in program annals -- and that visit to the legendary Rose Bowl stadium would add to the list of lengthy road trips Miles’ LSU teams would have made under his watch.

On Monday, LSU announced home-and-home series with both UCLA (away in 2021 and home in 2024) and Arizona State (away in 2022 and home in 2023), extending LSU’s comfy relationship with the Pac-12 and continuing the program’s recent trend of venturing far from Tiger Stadium to face nonconference opposition.

In the first 120 years of LSU football, it was unusual for the Tigers to travel 1,000 miles or more for a regular-season road game. After a highly unofficial examination of the year-by-year schedule in LSU’s media guide, it appears that the Tigers made only eight regular-season trips of 1,000-plus miles between 1893 and 2002 -- the longest being a 1,603-mile jaunt between Baton Rouge and Los Angeles in 1984 to face USC at the Memorial Coliseum.

Since 2003, LSU has made trips to Washington (covering a program-record 2,031 miles in 2009), Arizona State (1,235 miles in 2005) and Arizona (1,175 miles in 2003). And the program has already announced long trips to play Wisconsin at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field in 2016 (987 miles), a home-and-home series against Syracuse in 2015 and 2017 (1,199 miles), plus the newly announced visits to Pasadena (1,594 miles) and Tempe.

Long road trips, particularly to face BCS-conference opposition, can be a hassle, but LSU has fared exceptionally well in those scenarios over the last decade. The Tigers are 7-0 against Pac-12 opponents since 2003, with three of those wins (Arizona, Arizona State, Washington) coming on the road and one at a neutral site (against Oregon in Dallas in 2011).

The Tigers faced at least one BCS-conference opponent in every regular season except one (2008) dating back to 2002 and have won 12 in a row since falling at Virginia Tech in 2002. Included on LSU’s hit list over that period are wins over TCU, Washington (twice), West Virginia (twice), Arizona (twice), Arizona State, North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State and Virginia Tech.

In other words, LSU’s recent interest in spreading its purple and gold colors across the country has paid off thus far, and it appears that trend will only continue as we enter the college football playoff era, where strength of schedule will be an important factor for contending teams.

LSU’s 1,000-MILE CLUB
There are only a handful of times where LSU’s football team has traveled 1,000 miles or more for a nonconference road contest. That list has expanded significantly in the last decade and should continue to grow.

Year … Opponent/Miles
1922 … Rutgers (L) /1,194
1931 … Army (L)/1,219
1935 … Manhattan (W)/1,195
1939 … Holy Cross (W)/1,345
1942 … Fordham (W)/1,194
1947 … Boston College (W)/1,375
1979 … Colorado (W)/1,034
1984 … USC (W)/1,603
2003 … Arizona (W)/1,175
2005 … Arizona State (W)/1,235
2009 … Washington (W)/2,031
2015 or 2017 … Syracuse/1,199
2021 … UCLA/1,594
2022 … Arizona State/1,235
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He probably thought he was prepared to compete at the time, but Corey Thompson can now admit that it blew his mind when he first set foot on LSU’s practice field as a freshman.

He had been an all-state safety and certainly has athletic genes -- both of his parents were college athletes -- but the speed of the players around him, the increased complexity of the playbook and the intricacies of playing safety in college initially made life rough for Thompson.

[+] EnlargeCorey Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCorey Thompson will have to overcome a late-season knee injury as well as some talented incoming safety prospects.
“Sometimes it was a little bit overwhelming,” Thompson said. “I got tired, I got frustrated, questioned myself a few times, but I’m good now.”

He eventually made the transition in fine fashion. Thompson played in all 13 games in 2012 as a true freshman, mostly covering kicks on special teams, and had claimed a starting spot by the midway point of his second season.

He had started five of the last six games in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- an ailment that has kept him out of the Tigers’ spring practice while he recovers from offseason surgery.

Now Thompson and his fellow veterans must help a new class of freshman safeties overcome the natural frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies their first taste of life in the SEC. That group, which includes ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect for 2014, Jamal Adams, along with Devin Voorhies and John Battle, is one of the nation’s top collection of safety signees and will almost certainly compete for playing time in 2014.

Les Miles confirmed as much after Saturday’s scrimmage, when a reporter asked whether any safeties had earned a starting spot yet.

“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said.

Competition suits Thompson fine, and LSU’s coaching staff will have plenty of options since Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson also started at safety at least once last fall.

“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”

Martin intercepted two passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and Jefferson had one, causing Miles to remark afterward that he thinks the safeties are playing better. If that’s the case, that would be a good sign -- since safety was a fairly inconsistent position for the Tigers in 2013. Senior Craig Loston was an old hand at safety by then, but Martin was the only other experienced starter -- and he had started just once prior to last fall.

It was a rocky learning experience for all involved, which was part of the reason that Mills finally shifted from cornerback to fill in at safety against Arkansas and then start there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.

“It was a curve, just trying to be more of a vocal leader and stepping up in a position, trying to be a first-time starter and getting to know the defense more from changing positions,” Martin said. “Because when I first got here, I was playing strong and I mixed in free safety. So it’s all about knowing the defense.”

That last part will probably be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers once they arrive this summer. Adams is LSU’s highest-rated safety signee in the ESPN prospect rankings since Loston (the No. 1 safety in 2009), so clearly he has the physical tools to excel in college. It might be only a matter of time until he cashes in on that star potential, but it’s no simple task catching on to the job that awaits him at LSU.

“One thing is the speed of the game, but the next is really just knowing your plays, knowing how to mix in different calls and stuff like that because you’re the quarterback of the defense at safety,” Thompson said. “I’m making calls every play, so I have to know what’s going on, where people are lining up at and give them different calls and stuff.”

The veterans plan to help teach the newcomers from the moment they arrive on campus. Once they learn the intricacies of the position, that’s when the competition will truly begin -- and there will be plenty of that.

“That’s what football is all about,” Mills said. “It’s about that competitive area, the competitive nature. You have to be competitive whether it’s on the field, off the field, in practice, wherever you are.”

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